The Wilberg Mine fire, which claimed the lives of twenty-seven miners on 19
December 1984, was the most deadly coal-mine fire in Utah history and the worst
U. S. mine disaster in a dozen years. Investigation of the fire revealed
serious failures by the agencies charged with assuring coal mine safety.
Located in Emery County, some 115 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, the
Wilberg Mine was one of three area mines owned by the Utah Power and Light Company
(UP&L) and used to fuel its nearby power plants.
On the evening of 19 December 1984, twenty-eight people -- over twice the
usual crew number -- were present in the Fifth Right longwall section as the
crew neared completion of a new twenty-four-hour world-production record. At
about 9 p.m., fire broke out in First North near the entrance to the Fifth
Right section. First North, the main haulageway into the Wilberg Mine,
consisted of a series of six parallel tunnels running several miles into the
mountain. Just over a mile along First North were the two right-hand tunnels
leading to the Fifth Right longwall section. Within minutes, smoke and lethal
gases traveled the 2,400 feet down Fifth Right to the working face of the
longwall. One miner escaped, but eighteen miners and nine company officials
were trapped and killed. Among the victims was Nannett Wheeler, the first
woman to die in a Utah mine since women officially entered mining in 1973.
Rescuers, believing that the trapped miners might still be alive, worked
frantically to reach them. Following three days of heroic effort, rescue crews
entered Fifth Right and located 25 bodies. Before the bodies could be removed,
however, the fire rekindled, forcing rescuers to evacuate and seal the mine. Recovery of the bodies was finally completed in December 1985, nearly a full
year after the disaster. The sealed area where the fire began was not opened
until July 1986. Only then could the federal Mine Safety and Health
Administration (MSHA) begin its investigation into the cause of the fire.
In the Spring of 1987, MSHA ruled that the Wilberg fire was caused by a faulty
air compressor, allowed to run unattended in a non-fireproofed area. MSHA
issued thirty-four citations against Utah Power and Light and Emery Mining
Company (the mine's operator). Nine of the citations were for violations that
directly contributed to the disaster. However, MSHA itself received strong
criticism from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), in part for failing
to issue these same citations when it inspected the mine only days before the
fire. The union also questioned MSHA's focus on the cause of the fire rather
than the cause of the deaths, insisting that miners died, not because there was
a fire, but because they had no escape route.
Following a Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee hearing into the Wilberg
disaster, Utah Senator Orrin G. Hatch requested an investigation by the General
Accounting Office (GAO) -- the investigative arm of Congress -- into MSHA's
conduct regarding the Wilberg Mine. The GAO review, released in November 1987,
cited MSHA for allowing the Wilberg Mine to operate with an outdated
firefighting and evacuation plan, to operate with no fire suppression devices,
and to run a compressor known to be faulty. The GAO report also criticized
MSHA for permitting the longwall section to operate while a tunnel running off
the tailgate of the longwall machine was blocked to human travel by a
Two monuments stand in Emery County in honor of the twenty-seven who died in
the Wilberg Mine fire. One stands outside the Emery County courthouse in
Castle Dale. The other, an eight-foot slab of Canadian granite bearing the
etched figures of a male and female miner and the names of the victims, stands
vigil on a hillside overlooking the canyon that leads to the Wilberg Mine.
Top Mine Officials Die in Utah Fire
Hutchinson News, Kansas
December 22, 1984
Orangeville, Utah (UPI) -- Rescuers battling thick smoke and a flaring underground coal fire found the bodies of nine men Friday, including six top executives of the Wilberg Mine where 18 others were still trapped in a dead-end tunnel.
The specially trained volunteer rescue squads braved searing heat and falling debris in efforts to reach the other miners, including one woman, who have been trapped for two days more than a mile inside a mountain 115 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.
But hopes that they might found alive in a safety chamber deep in the mine were dimmed by discovery of nine bodies huddled in an area of the tunnel just beyond the fire, which was touched off Wednesday night when heat or sparks from a conveyer belt ignited thick coal seams.
It appeared the dead had tried to grope their way out of the smoke-filled tunnel, and may have been leading others, Emery spokesman Bob Henrie said.
"The fact that the six top officials were found in a group near the fire concerns us because they were the leaders. The position of the bodies indicates they may have been attempting to lead others out of the area," he said. "That brings up fears that some other miners were also trying to exit and we may find more bodies further down in the tunnel."
The company officials were in the mine to observe as workers tried to set a 24-hour world production record. Henrie downplayed the production speedup, saying there was "absolutely no correlation" between the record attempt and the fire.
Search team members stumbled across the bodies before dawn Friday. The rescuers, wearing fire retardant suits and portable oxygen units, checked the identities of the victims, then moved on. The bodies were still in the shaft late Friday.
Henrie said the men who died apparently walked about 1,500 feet toward the side tunnel's entrance before they were overcome. Had they made it another 30 feet, he said, they may have been able to get past the fire -- as did section foreman Kenneth Blake, the only worker who escaped.
All day the rescue team fought unsuccessfully to work its way into a safety chamber at the end of a 3,000-foot-long side shaft, where the others might be huddled in an air pocket protected by heavy canvas curtains.
Meanwhile, another crew worked to drill an air hole into the safety chamber.
Henrie contradicted an earlier report that a 3-inch air hole had been drilled into the chamber. He said work crews were having trouble piercing the tough mine walls.
Holes were drilled, however, from the adjacent Deer Creek mine so that water could be pumped into the burning coal seam. Crews erected slabs of concrete blocks along the smoldering seams in an effort to snuff out the fire. They also doused it with a slurry of water and foam.
Several times Friday the fire flared out of control, forcing the rescue team to retreat. More crews, some from mines in other parts of Utah and Colorado, joined the fight. Working in teams of five men tethered by ropes, they ventured into the tunnel past the flames in search of the remaining miners.
Friends and relatives of the miners waited anxiously for word as their Christmas holiday turned grim. Some attended prayer vigils in local churches.
Names of Those Lost:
David Bocook -- Mine Manager
Vic Cingolani -- General Mine Foreman
James Hamlin -- EMC Vice President of Operations
Alex Poulos -- General Mine Foreman, Longwall
Lester Walls, Jr.